Since the report was announced two years ago, practitioners, campaigners and the families of those who have died in police custody have faced an agonising wait. Now, we at last have the chance to reflect on the findings.
As Chair of the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA), I’m immensely proud to see the service of all Independent Custody Visitors recognised in the report. Their work safeguards the well being and rights of detainees and ensures that conditions in custody are at a level acceptable to the wider community. Concerns were raised in the report about the governance of the ICV scheme, suggesting that the oversight from Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) does not provide acceptable distance from the police service.
I have been involved with ICVA for five years, both as a member and Chair of the Board and in my capacity as PCC, and I have seen the benefits of this working relationship. Not only do PCCs provide the link between the public and the police, directly answerable to the communities they serve, but they also have the direct and localised power to efficiently implement changes in how their forces operate. I hope that any review into ICVA governance is mindful of the benefit PCCs can provide.
I welcome proposals addressing long term organisational change, including ensuring that mental health training is delivered consistently to all 44 police forces in England and Wales and calling on the police service to challenge racial discrimination. Reforms to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), expanding the use of body worn video and an end to officers conferring before offering statements in the case of a death in custody will bolster police transparency and accountability.
I am particularly pleased to see the families of those who have died in custody at the heart of the review. The report formally recognises the rights of families to be involved in investigations in a meaningful way and the obligations of the Government to offer them properly funded, specialist bereavement counselling. The recommendation to also offer free, non-means tested legal assistance represents a huge step forward in redressing the imbalance of the vast resources behind the police service and other public bodies when investigations into deaths in custody arise.
Of course, a fundamental aim of the inquiry is to reduce the number of times these investigations must be carried out and the report reflects a commitment to providing a higher standard of care to vulnerable people in custody. Among the complex range of needs of custody detainees, many require medical care. Along with many others in policing, I have long agreed that this service should be consolidated within the NHS. As the report correctly states, this would allow for consistency of approach and allow for critical access to NHS medical records, quickly identifying any underlying conditions that are not obvious or offered by the detainee. I hope the Government will take note of this recommendation in their ongoing reviews.
All the recommendations can be considered ambitious and a complete ban on the use of police cells as a ‘place of safety’, where those detained under mental health powers are taken for immediate care, is no exception. Along with ICVA’s Chief Executive and an ever-growing contingent of supporters, I have been a passionate advocate for achieving this.
Huge strides have been made. Nationally, we’ve seen the number of individuals taken to police cells fall by two-thirds. In this hugely important area though, we must treat one case as one too many, recognising the hugely traumatising impact of police cells on individuals in mental health crisis. Setting out a ban in law sends a powerful message about a national commitment to appropriate care.
The ban, along with many of the recommendations in this report, will undoubtedly place a strain on police, health and other public services that are already stretched. But what we cannot lose sight of is the utmost importance of protecting vulnerable people who come into the care of these services and ensuring that where tragedies do happen, the process is transparent and robust and families are supported, involved and able to access justice.
Martyn Underhill PCC